Muong Luan Ancient Tower

Unusually heavy rains had washed out many roads in Viet Nam including the road at Pa Bat. A crowd drinking beer, tea, coffee, and smoking, had gathered in a nearby building to watch the action of in idle machine - a combination backhoe and road grader -  making the repair. A mountain of dirt lay cross the road in what seemed a full day's work. We were not far from Muong Luan, our final destination, and getting there before dark was essential. Night comes quickly in the mountains of Northern Viet Nam.

I was searching for the ancient tower of Muong Luan supposedly built by early Buddhists on their wanderings through Asia. Not much is known about the tower except its location in the dusty little town of wooden buildings in Muong Luan beside a constantly flooding river lit to glass every month by a full moon that seems larger than any other moon around the world where scrawny lop-headed chickens and black pigs root through the mud.

 The road to Muong Luan from Dien Bien Phu is classified as a paved numbered provincial road of lower quality, in this case highway 130 and no quality. Road construction in Viet Nam is a constant endeavor due, in part, to the unexplainable psyche of the Vietnamese. Rather than build a decent road with a thick layer of asphalt that might last ten years or more, they scrape out a fairly even patch of dirt and cover it with a thin blanket of asphalt that starts to chip, crack, and pit at one end while they are still working on the other end. Within a year the road is a disaster of rubble, ruts, pot-holes, caverns and furrows, a no-man's land of dangerous travels as trucks busses and motorbikes toss up either great clouds of choking dust or grind the dirt into a gluey paste of sucking mud.

That may be the only way to build a road in the outback given the available equipment: a road grader, roller, water buffalo and human power. The grader scraps a somewhat level path; the water buffalo drags a log over the top to complete the leveling; a layer of 4 to 6 inch stone chips follow; again the water buffalo makes a run; tar is carried in buckets from a waiting truck; then workers gather quarter-inch crushed rocks into flat baskets and toss the rocks onto the tar. The roller flattens everything one more time and the road is finished. Probably the quarter-inch tar and stone layer is about all they can handle. Just the thought of stacking six inches of stone and tar would scatter every worker.

The scenery along the way had been spectacular, rolling hillsides covered with quilts of green, buffalo grazing like dots of caramel on almost vertical slopes, rivers of silver cutting through gorges, and small dusty towns of dozing citizens hanging limply from hammocks in the shade of stores.

In Dien Bien Dong we had stopped at the local orphanage to deliver food. Only ten children lived in the orphanage, eight boys and two girls. The staff keeps the building clean and takes good care of the children; all smiling bunches of joy happy to see foreigners. Nev Tickner, an Australian who lives in Dien Bien Phu doing charity work, had bought a cooker for the orphanage and gave a demonstration to the staff on how to fry chicken after mixing them in a batter of eggs and crumbs. As the only Australian in the area, Tickner claims to be a unique ethnic minority, and a very valuable one.

I wondered through the town with my friend Linh viewing the brightly colored and cheap goods imported from China. With so little industry in the country one might think the Vietnamese would start producing their own goods but in this respect they are like most countries and find it easier to buy cheap goods from places like China rather than support their own efforts.

An old man, wide grin beaming across his face like a beacon, waved to me. Waving does not mean good-bye in Viet Nam, but hello and come on over for tea and a chat. We shook hands like old brothers as the tea was brought out. To a Westerner, Vietnamese hold your hands for an uncomfortable amount of time and often will not release it until the meeting has finished. They are an affectionate people and it is not uncommon to see men walking hand-in-hand or hugging one another. Women are constantly glued together like ivy. Foreigners, after meeting a Vietnamese woman, often confuse their hand holding, hugging, and rubbing of arms, especially if the arms are covered with hair, as something sexual but these are just gestures of their sociability and the affectionate society in which they live.

The man was 82 and in remarkably good health. He had been a soldier, as has I, but it was only mentioned once as the man said, "that is in the past." He seemed especially happy to see me since foreigners are extremely rare in the isolated area. He invited me to dinner and to stay as his guest in his home for as long as I liked. There are two kinds of people in Viet Nam: those who pretend to be extremely friendly and gracious and with the ultimate emotive to clean out your bank account. Then there are the majority of Vietnamese, the average people found throughout Viet Nam who are genuinely gracious and generous and want nothing more than to build good will between peoples.

The road to Muong Lun Ancient Tower is long and difficult and had taken us from Dien Bien Phu through Hong Cum, Huoi Le, Sam Mun, Non Nua, Huoi Mua, Na Son, Dien Bien Dong, and now, the final town before our destination, Pa Bat. At Pa Bat our efforts seemed to be for nothing and we stood staring at the washed out road. The washout had left a huge crater just before the bridge and trucks had piled tons of dirt to fill in the hole. A small backhoe sat idle on the opposite side of the dirt and, even if the tractor had been in operation there was little doubt the hole could be filled in without hours of work.

The operator was drinking beer with the spectators. He spied our frustration and jumped off his chair and told us to give him ten minutes and he would clear us a path. Of course we thanked him kindly, then had a good laugh between ourselves because of his obviously misguided optimism. The laugh was on us. Like an eager mole he twisted his backhoe from side to side tossing dirt everywhere in such a display of eagerness we could only stare with disbelief. In less than ten minutes he had burrowed through. I don't usually pass out money freely but both Nev Tickner and I were so impressed that we gave him $10 for the performance. The reward seemed to baffle him and he would have been pleased with nothing more than seeing the smiles on our faces and the hearty handshakes we offered. That $10 proved to be the best money I spent in Viet Nam and eventually saved us a great deal of grief.

The road to Muong Luan did not improve but the destination was worth the drive. Muong Luan is a quaint little village clinging desperately to steep hillsides like spiders on a brick wall. The road through town is a cacophony of mud and rocks. Some improvements appear to be on the horizon since a roller sat on the far side of the bridge and there appeared to be an anticipation of construction around the tower. Children were using the tower like a giant play-toy, an artificial mountain on which to roll around.

I could find no information about the tower from anyone in the village and there is little on the Internet other than conflicting theories. A Dien Bien Phu tourist guidebook, poorly written in the official language of government boredom with snatches of narcolepsy, gave all the thrilling details displayed in most Vietnamese books - absolutely nothing except dimensions. 

Muong Luan is a Laotian village and several locals said the tower was built by Viet - Lao ethnic groups about the 14th or 16th centauries. (Missing a date by several hundred years is perfectly acceptable in Viet Nam.) Others said the tower was built in the 12th centaury. Other people claimed Buddhist monks built the tower on their way to China. That explanation seems the most plausible since the tower resembles many other Buddhist icons.

The structure is carved with lotus, flying birds, snakes, dragons and moss and mold drape the stone sides in silky green robes. A headless soldier rests at the base. Trees frame the tower and the river and mountains make a nice background for photographs.

Unfortunately few people, except the staunchest battle-hardened tourists, will ever visit the tower due to the impossible road conditions. Too bad. The scenery is beautiful.

By the time we reached Pa Bat a new pile of dirt blocked our way and the tractor operator had gone home. Word was sent of our arrival. Within a very short time he came putting down the road with his equipment, a smile on his face. Again he cleared the road. The best part of Viet Nam is always the people.



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